“Quarantine”
by Alix Ohlin
from the January 30, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

I haven’t enjoyed Ohlin’s work in the past, and I don’t think “Quarantine” is for me either. Ohlin jumps right in with an incredibly detailed, but not at all telling, first paragraph that even tells us what brand of cigarettes Bridget smokes. Her brand of writing just isn’t for me. But perhaps I’m missing something.

I look forward to your thoughts below. Please join the conversation and tell us what you think of Alix Ohlin’s “Quarantine.”

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By | 2017-05-25T16:41:35+00:00 January 23rd, 2017|Categories: Alix Ohlin, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. BookerTalk January 24, 2017 at 4:43 pm

    I dont feel qualified to comment specifically on this since I’ve not read “Quarantine” but if there is that much detail in just one paragraph it would spoil the imaginative experience of reading for me.

  2. Dennis Lang January 25, 2017 at 4:29 pm

    I wish I was up to the depth other commenters here have provided for so many of these “New Yorker” stories. I can’t, but having just read this one it left me dazzled: it’s dizzying pace, character depictions, riveting scenes, seamlessly cemented though years apart, how it all flows through these lives,the unfolding of their relationships and how they evolve over time–culminating with the pathos between the two women at the center. The mystery and (for lack of a better word) the authenticity of it.
    Just gripping!!

  3. Jim Helsdingen January 25, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    Amen Dennis Lang. Just read quarantine and thought it was terrific. I’m looking for more of
    Alix Ohlin’s work and can’t wait to read more.

  4. Mark Richardson (@RchrdsnMark) January 25, 2017 at 8:02 pm

    I’ve been a fan of Alix Ohlin since I read a story of her’s called “The Only Child.” It was published in Ploughshares and used these bold flash forwards that added depth to the story. I read her first story collection, which I really liked as well. If you like “Quarantine,” so I do, I’d suggest you look for that first collection (Babylon). I find her prose clean and interesting, and am not turned off by the details; I dig them.

  5. Eric January 26, 2017 at 11:04 am

    I mostly enjoyed this story, and I agree with the praise above. I thought the detail at the beginning was fun, a kind of faux “local color” in a world where the real thing is growing increasingly rare. But I think I would have liked it more if it had a real ending. Yes, the given ending is probably more authentic, we all know that relationships nowadays are at least as likely to fizzle out as end dramatically. But I wanted to know what *happened* to Bridget and Angela and even Charles, gosh darn it! Poor old superficial me, I guess.

  6. cwthomas89 January 26, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    The prose is excellent, the actions of the protagonist very human. (In the midst of an odd conversation with someone from her past, she gazes out at her young daughter playing in a field; stiffens when she falls; honks the horn to illustrate she ‘saw that’.) The melancholy mood is offset by the everyday proceedings in life; here, those function less as banal and more as taking an edge off the strangeness and darkness. I really enjoyed this, and felt a bit emotional at the end!

  7. Dennis Lang January 26, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    Also intriguing to me is the way the author compressed the arc of these lives that extend over years, if not decades (and expanded might have been a novel) into revealing, emotional laden scenes that forcefully drive the narrative.
    Eric, I hear you. I became so wrapped up and concerned for these characters a neatly tied up ending would have represented some relief. But personally I think it’s appropriate and even more resonant that we’re left with outcomes that are left unanswered.

  8. Trevor January 26, 2017 at 2:42 pm

    I’m glad everyone is enjoying the story so much. I’m always much happier to have my negative comments tossed aside. I have read a quarter of the story so far, and I am not there yet, but with 3/4 left, and all of your good opinions giving me encouragement, I’m hopeful!

  9. Dennis Lang January 26, 2017 at 3:26 pm

    Presumptuous of me to speak for the others Trevor but I feel safe in saying we’re pulling for you!

    (And if you despise this noble author’s work, that’s okay also,)

  10. Melinda January 26, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    To me, Angela’s role in this story is to act as a neutral, inner force, and Bridget, bridge, is the conduit leading certain aspects of the inner being to the outer, expressive, world. They function as anthropomorphic motifs, like in fairy tales. “Angela had a German boyfriend with a face so feminine that he looked exquisite, like a porcelain doll. His name was Hans, or maybe Anders.” Angela takes Bridget in, comforts and protects her, like a parent, and exposes her to particular people and situations, websites; Bridget, in turn, nurtures and develops these experiences, transforming them into parts of herself, her life.

    When Angela’s health fades—she sees the light of death, her father—Bridget’s fragile outer world begins to disconnect (“Bridget stood in her kitchen, watching the wind twist maple leaves off a tree in the yard.”) from her inner being. Bridget prepares to see herself separate, isolated or quarantined, from her lively outer existence. “’Come home with me,’” Bridget said impulsively…. Angela said nothing, and the trees fell silent, too, as if to make sure that Bridget heard her refusal.”

  11. Dennis Lang January 27, 2017 at 1:29 pm

    Very thoughtful take, Melinda!

    Thanks for sharing.

  12. Melinda January 27, 2017 at 7:11 pm

    Thank you, Dennis.

  13. Harriett January 27, 2017 at 8:50 pm

    I was so intrigued by this story, I could not put it down, but also felt that I didn’t quite understand it, which is why I searched the internet to see what others said. It is beautifully written, and it tells a story, in an old-fashioned way. Yes, like a fairy tale. The interesting character to me is Bridget. She seems to glide through life, doing all the “right” things, having an impressive career, a successful (in the conventional sense) marriage, thriving children, everything comes so easy to her. But something is missing. There is a lack of emotion or real connection to everything around her. Angela is so the opposite. She has so much suffering, she can’t live anything approaching a normal life. The contrast between the 2 women is startling. I don’t know what to make of it, except that it’s very sad.

  14. Sean H January 28, 2017 at 1:47 am

    Painfully bad fiction here. Ohlin is best known for being savaged by William Giraldi in the NYTimes and then a bunch of whiny millennials who’d been given participation medals their whole lives and whose parents begged their teachers for As rallied to her defense saying that reviewers should support artists and why don’t you just compliment everything like on Buzzfeed and Upworthy, and then Jacob Silverman at Slate.com chimed in about the epidemic of niceness in online commentary/book reviews. I’ve gotta say, this train wreck can’t help but make me side with Giraldi and Silverman. I haven’t read her books that were reviewed negatively but there seems like there is something awfully insipid and entitled in Ohlin.
    Mentioning the brand of cigarettes in the first paragraph is actually one of the few right choices she makes here. The story is trite, the characters are spoiled, uninteresting and downright boring, and the prose, while it has some fluidity, doesn’t exhibit much grace or trenchancy. Consider, “In the hospital, tethered to a tubular bouquet of chemotherapy drugs, he gritted his teeth and attempted to make light of the situation, but there was no light to be made.” That’s howler-level bad. So are the last two sentences of the story. So is the new agey subtext and the woe-is-me milieu.
    Seems like she came from a bourgeois Canadian family who bought her into an Ivy League school, the kind of girl who was on the fencing team or some shit, a shrill, skinny, brittle lass who was superficially desirable (good hair, pricy shoes) but a dead fish in bed, then she traveled to Europe and watched French New Wave and went slumming with Eurotrash club kids and squatters and is now culling from this mashmash of bland, predictable, first-world-problems nonsense while writing fourth-rate post-Cheever prose about the upper middle class as they spawn and suburbanize. Yawn.

  15. Eric January 28, 2017 at 6:17 am

    Gee Sean, I wish you wouldn’t hold back so much. You need to tell us what you really think.

    I found the prose style more pleasing than Sean did, though perhaps I wouldn’t have if I had noticed the tubular bouquet. But the main reason I liked it more was that the angst of Angela and Bridget seemed part of something bigger, or at least wider, than Sean’s archetype. I thought Angela could be a middle-aged female hikikomori–the Japanese word for people, mostly young men, who feel so uncomfortable with, and emotionally disengaged from, broader society that they barely leave their rooms. Although she does seem to be an affluent upper-middle-class suburbanite, perhaps she is universal enough that she wouldn’t have to be.

  16. Dennis Lang January 28, 2017 at 10:33 am

    Harriet, I share your sentiment. There is something missing from Bridget’s life, perhaps an unspoken desperation as she withdraws from social media, “hurtful” to see happier lives, or worse, those as “fragile” as her own.

    Certainly for me, when Charles reaches out to her to say she’s Angela’s best friend when they had been estranged for years, the moment is deeply moving. Bridget suppresses her bewilderment, and “answers the summons”.

  17. Dennis Lang January 28, 2017 at 10:44 am

    Hah!

    Sean, this is beautiful! Just the way fiction can stir the emotions. Absolutely energizes the conversation and good of you to supply references in support of your view, otherwise one might think you were just in an off mood.

    Was the dog hiding under the bed while you were writing this?

    Just giving you a hard time. I do enjoy your passion!!

  18. Dennis Lang January 28, 2017 at 10:56 am

    For those still with us, here’s an interesting response to the Giraldi article referenced above. Passing it along.

    http://htmlgiant.com/feature/william-giraldis-review-of-alix-ohlin-a-failure-in-four-parts/

  19. David January 28, 2017 at 12:51 pm

    Sean, there is a difference between the harsh review and inexcusable rudeness. The first two paragraphs of your comment above are fine, but the third one is just a diatribe of personal insults. The low point there is when you comment on Ohlin’s physical appearance and speculate about how she is as a sexual partner. This paragraph undercuts any credibility your criticism might have, as well as calling into question your basic human decency.
    .
    I read Giraldi’s review and while it is scathing (more of the novel than the short stories, two of which he takes some time to explain have flaws, but are still fairly good) he is always talking about the writing, not the author personally, and always supporting his criticisms with a slew of quotations to back his claims. The harsh literary review has become its own form of entertainment for a lot of people, but when reviews are more personal than about the writing they are no better than the worst type of gossip columns.
    .
    It’s too bad that this comment section does not allow us to edit our comments after posting them. If it did I would strongly recommend, Sean, that you delete that entire third paragraph. It’s not literary criticism. It’s just plain mean.

  20. Harriett January 28, 2017 at 4:19 pm

    I concur with David. I was struck by the anger I felt from Sean’s review, which seemed quite out-of-proportion to what otherwise might have been a valid critique.

  21. Sean H January 28, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    David’s point is an interesting one, and I agree that purely personal or ad hominem attacks don’t contribute much to literary criticism, but a writer’s appearance, race, gender, political or sexual orientation are all part of the game, no? Like, should we just ignore in criticism the fact that Philip Roth is Jewish, or that James Baldwin was black, or that Edward Albee was gay, or that Wendy Wasserstein was chubby, or that David Mamet is a conservative, or that Jonathan Lethem lost his mother at a young age, or that Thomas Pynchon avoids publicity, or that Don DeLillo doesn’t use email, or that Donna Tartt is a small woman with a tidy appearance and a deliberate manner of speaking, or that Norman Mailer was in the army, or that John Updike was a tall white WASP, or that Tom Perrotta is very short, or that David Mitchell has an Asian wife and a son with autism, and so forth? Whether or not someone is/was good-looking or had a lot of sexual partners or didn’t, or is or isn’t well-traveled, this matters, a lot. Adam Gopnik had a piece in The New Yorker a few years back where he contrasted Camus and Sartre and essentially the hinge of his whole argument regarding the differences in how they viewed the world is the fact that Camus was very handsome and Sartre was very homely!
    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/04/09/facing-history
    This is what I was getting at with Olin. We live in a Youtube world, where authors choose to put themselves out there as public figures. Based on listening to her speak and watching her carriage and posture and reading her comments in interviews, I made a determination about her literary approach based on her class, appearance, race, gender, intentionally misspelled first name, the generation she comes from, and other factors. It’s possible I may be wrong, it’s possible for others to have different POVs and to disagree, or even to find me “mean,” but my attack was not personal (I don’t know Ohlin or anyone who does) and my interpretation was not casual or ad hominem, it was well thought out and based on research and observation .

  22. David January 28, 2017 at 7:55 pm

    Sean, your reply is a very long-winded way of avoiding the fact that you described her as “a dead fish in bed”. Have you actually had sex with her or watched her having sex? Is this an observation you have heard from one of her other sexual partners? No? Then your entire last reply about public perceptions of authors based on observable qualities is just garbage and avoiding the issue.
    .
    Should we now start speculating about your sexual abilities based on your comments about her sexual abilities?. Why not? If you think such comments are fair game about her then surely they are fair game about you too. But of course that would be repugnant to do. Your comment was disgusting and your inability to see that and unwillingness to retract it is disgraceful. To claim that this “attack was not personal” is absurd. How much more personal can you get than talking about how a person performs sexually?
    .
    Trevor, I am sure you don’t want this discussion section to go too far afield of discussing the merits of the story so I’ll leave this as my last comment on the matter. I frankly cannot imagine what else Sean would say (other than coming to his senses) that I would want to reply to anyway.

  23. William January 30, 2017 at 6:35 pm

    I really liked this story. Even more, I think it was excellently written. I was going to quote from Dennis Lang’s first post, but then I realized I would have to quote the whole thing. So I’ll just say – I agree. In particular I enjoyed and admire the relentless narrative drive with a clear through line and no distractions.

    Here are some of my favorite sentences:

    “[They] were little parents. They liked to make a fuss over people and put on elaborate dinner parties, and then they’d get drunk and spend the night bickering. It was tedious, and yet you had to indulge them, because you could see how much they enjoyed it, this performance of adulthood.”

    “As if in one movement, she hung up the phone, untied the apron, collected her passport from Maya and Andrew’s apartment, and went home”

    “Bridget caught her breath, sometimes, when she saw how athletic her daughter was, how reckless her grace, *how fully she possessed her youth*.”

    “The sadness of his death was still a sinkhole that she could fall into and be swallowed by.”

    From Dennis’s second post, this is something that I felt very strongly while I was reading:

    “Also intriguing to me is the way the author compressed the arc of these lives that extend over years, if not decades (and expanded might have been a novel) into revealing, emotional laden scenes that forcefully drive the narrative.”

    Amen. Reminded me of her fellow Canadian, Alice Munro.

    Like Cwthomas I too felt emotional at the end – I found it a genuinely moving story.

    There is something else that I don’t think anyone has mentioned so far and that I think is central to the story. Here are four places where it appears:

    “Later, she would remember how Angela, down at the bar, had said, with sudden sobriety, ‘Nobody ever takes care of me,’ and then laughed, dismissing her self-pity.”

    “When she saw Bridget, she stood up and flung her arms around her, pressing herself against Bridget’s chest. It was the way Bridget’s children had hugged her when they were little, holding nothing back, and Angela’s body felt like a child’s, thin and pliant and eager.”

    “The two of them fell asleep that way, body to body, flushed cheek against warm leg, an embrace that was not about sex but not not about it, either, a hunger for touch that was somehow satisfied by this middle distance.”

    “When Angela woke up, Bridget spooned the broth into her mouth, wiping away dribbles with a tea towel. Angela did not object, she parted her lips like a baby.”

    There is something fundamental here about the essential nature of human touch, about caring for people and being cared for (“Then came a year when Sam almost died of heart trouble. For months, Bridget took care of him and their family”). We can infer this from the title, “Quarantine”, which is a state of isolation. Angela responds to Bridget’s warmth and caring and physical contact. By this time, however, she is too far gone to come all the way back. It would be going too far to say that Angela’s illness results from her husband’s coldness, but I certainly don’t see Charles being a warm and caring person.

    Finally, Harriet and Dennis wanted a real ending. I felt that this *was* a real ending, movingly realistic. Life offers some good and some bad, some experiences that are complete in themselves and others that remain beyond our understanding or our ability to grasp:

    “Bridget would soon be stripped back to herself. Sometimes she thought of this aloneness as a luxury. Sometimes she was afraid of it.”

    I think it was Dennis who said “There is something missing from Bridget’s life.” Absolutely. It is the same thing that is missing from everyone’s life — a sense of completeness or finality.

    It is in portraying this aspect of the human condition, the sense of life’s fluidity, our inability to grasp it whole, that I think is Ohlin’s highest achievement in this story.

  24. Greg February 5, 2017 at 3:13 am

    William – Thank you for sharing the central tenet of the story – the lack of completeness in a life. You have made me pause for thought. In addition, I also loved this quote you highlighted:

    “Bridget caught her breath, sometimes, when she saw how athletic her daughter was, how reckless her grace, *how fully she possessed her youth*.”

    Sean – I enjoyed your comments as always. You help me each week to put that particular story in context to the canon as a whole….and I get what you were doing in the second half of your post – you were using wit to share why and how we get served drivel more and more…and I’m sure Trevor sensed that too and thus didn’t redact your words at all!

  25. mehbe February 6, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    It held my interest, which is enough for the casual reader I am to think a piece of fiction is “good”. But some things did bug me….

    I am wondering about Hans or maybe Anders, Angela’s German boyfriend. Anders isn’t a German name, it’s Scandinavian. Assuming the author knows that, I don’t understand why she used it, since his nationality wasn’t what was vaguely remembered, just his name.

    Also, although I think the fairy tale weirdness of Angela’s retreat from electricity generally works, having her house be such a superficially normal and well-maintained place didn’t really jibe with Angela’s desperate illness very well. And even if Angela was extremely isolated, she still needed supplies, and Charles, at least, seemed to be checking on her. There would be some kind of clear path from the end of the road to her place, rather than the lack of indication that Bridget experienced. I think the author was after a surreal effect by having this place seem rather like an apparition in the forest, but I got sidetracked by disbelief while reading it.

  26. Ken February 21, 2017 at 3:53 am

    I quite liked this. Friendships are unpredictable things and not always consistent. They way that Ohlin shows how tentative, maybe trivial, while also strangely, oddly deep their bond is was really fascinating. Bridget seems barely interested in Angela, yet they share that wonderful intimacy one night while drunk in bed sleeping. That scene was quite poignant.

  27. Harri T February 21, 2017 at 6:34 am

    Anders the boyfriend caught my eye too, Mehbe. To me it was a neat joke – meaning in German “something else”.

  28. William February 21, 2017 at 9:27 pm

    Ken —

    Well observed. “Poignant” is accurate, I think. Any writer who can create a scene totally from words and images that is honestly emotional is talented, in my opinion.

  29. mehbe February 22, 2017 at 4:16 am

    Harri T –

    Thanks! Yes, that is a good joke – and explains the peculiar choice of name.

  30. Beep March 8, 2017 at 3:16 am

    To me putting the names Hans and Anders together had a little bit of Hans Christian Anderson flavor and nicely foreshadowed the fairy tale aspect of the story. I liked the contrast of the skillfully managed linear modern story and the more fantastical fairytale elements. I also liked the treatment of the themes of caretaking and touch, and of connection and disconnection via technology.

    I read the New Yorker regularly but often skip the fiction. This one grabbed me.

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